A while back, I wrote lovingly of a sweet little tabletop RPG (TTRPG) called Mirror. Currently, I am in the middle of a campaign of an upcoming (to Kickstarter, October 1) TTRPG by the same author (a personal friend, it’s worth noting1), entitled Americana. I have no real desire to discuss the nitty-gritty mechanics of, say, where the dice go and how to use them, but as far as my experience is concerned this all works well. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the gears that make the clock tick – all the little details are incredibly important and difficult to make work. I just don’t think that writing about them is particularly expressive, and Americana has a lot of implementation facets that really make for a compelling experience. These experiential details are what I’d prefer to discuss.
Americana is a murder-mystery. The ultimate goal is to solve the murder of the group’s mutual friend. Thus, while there will be all manner of conflict, the primary driving factor for success is that of deduction. In its default state2, it’s a game of deduction defined by play – nobody, not even the game master (GM), knows who the murderer is. For a potentially-relatable board game comparison, it’s less Clue, and more Tobago3. By the same tack, the GM doesn’t come to the first session with a fully-developed setting. Instead, the first session is essentially a collaboration between the GM and players to figure out make decisions on everything about the town the characters reside in. Its size, its local hangouts and cliques, the adults who will yell at you for smoking in the alley. It’s an approach that gives the players agency, and therefore makes them more invested in the narrative. This is, perhaps, less important in a lot of TTRPG settings; you don’t necessarily need to be invested in the dungeon you’re slashing your way through, you just need a compelling hook (of course I want to slay Richard the cockatrice and avenge the death of my sister, the statue!). But, for a group of teens to band together in the confines of a single town to sneak around and solve their mutual friend’s murder? The additional level of engagement makes the whole thing more personal.
Character generation is, of course, also done during the first session. To add one more collaborative element to setup, however, the group collectively creates an additional character: the dead friend. Your own personal Laura Palmer gets assigned skills just like any other character, which any player character can make use of throughout the game via a clever flashback mechanism. Largely, however, the dead friend’s sheet is whitespace, to be filled with a Charlie-Kelly’s-mailroom-esque web of characters, places, objects, and their ties to the victim. During setup, it’s another place where players get to create their own investment into the campaign. For the rest of the game, it’s the framework of deduction.
Engaging experiential details like those compel me to step into the world, but there are a handful of less hands-on details that I also feel the need to bring up. For starters, the standard setting of Americana is that sort of Happy Days-esque idealized 1950s America: cool cars, malt shops, and teenage hijinks4. While there’s a lot to be said for this aesthetic, (privileged) creators have a tendency to ignore the fact that it was a pretty tough time if you weren’t a straight white cis male. It is a very welcome touch, then, that Americana explicitly says that this is not our 1950s America, but one which developed without the horrible marginalization that still informs our 2018 reality. Of course, the world of Americana has elves and bipedal dragons5 as well, so it’s not a huge leap to say ‘hey, this world ostensibly resembles an existing world, but is canonically better.’ It’s a simple thing that many creators seem unwilling to do, but it has huge implications as far as diversifying the hobby. I’m lucky enough to game with a bunch of folks who I trust implicitly, but if I were joining a random game night or a session at a con, I’d be a lot less likely to express myself in ways that are honest to myself. Even moreso in a game setting that, if taken at face value, gives players a tidy excuse for harmful behavior.
This conscious, proactive approach to player safety and comfort is extended to the No Card, a bit of paper with a big ol’ “X” on it that every player has on hand. If anything currently being played out is making a player uncomfortable, they can reveal their card and halt the narrative. Theoretically, of course, any player in any game can speak up and announce that they’re not okay with the direction a narrative is going, but in reality that takes a lot more emotional energy than flipping a card – especially when you factor in marginalized folks tending to be taught not to speak over their oppressors. I’ve seen this sort of thing mentioned before as a mechanism to ensure an inclusive environment for any game. Being baked right into the rules immediately sets a positive tone, though, and I think little inclusions like this in rulebooks really have the potential to make the hobby more welcoming.
I don’t necessarily play roleplaying games to win. Winning is (hopefully) very satisfying, of course6, but the overall experience is what makes hours of gameplay over weeks of sessions feel like no time at all. Experience encompasses many things, and it comes as much from the GM and players as it does the rules. But a good rulebook lends itself to a good experience, and from ensuring that all the players are engaged and invested in the narrative to establishing basic safety nets and boundaries for players, Americana lays the groundwork for a great experience.
- The author is a good friend, but I’m not getting anything out of this post aside from perhaps a hug. I fully intend to back the Kickstarter like anyone else. ↩︎
- There is an extensive set of rules laid out for a sealed-envelope sort of game where the GM knows what’s up. I have no experience with this. ↩︎
- For those who don’t know and don’t feel like reading through the BoardGameGeek link, Tobago is a treasure-hunting themed game using a deduction-style mechanic. Unlike, say, Clue, the rules that narrow down where the treasure can be are played as actions. It feels deductive, even if it isn’t predetermined and the players’ actions actually construct the answer. An imperfect analogy, to be sure, but I think it provides some sense of how moving forward works in Americana. ↩︎
- To be fair, there’s murder too, but you know what I mean. ↩︎
- The dragon race is so dang good. Their sex characteristics freely shift with their internal understanding of gender and they’re typically encouraged to experiment with this shifting ability and figure out who they are. While they’re not all genderfluid, they canonically can be. When I was young, the best I got was checking off one of two gender boxes on a character sheet. Now I get to be a crime-solvin’ pink non-binary dragon, and all I can say is heck yeah. ↩︎
- It is a collaborative, coöperative experience, of course, so I’m not saying I intentionally derail or throw games. The point is still to work toward getting everyone to a positive ending. ↩︎